How Houston's Fifth Ward fuels Miami's Xavien Howard to become NFL’s top CB

Terez PaylorSenior NFL writer

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. – Xavien Howard’s first brush with murder happened when he was around 13, he says.

On a rainy afternoon in Houston, Xavien was hooping alone in the street in front of his house when two figures in the not-too-far distance appeared. One he’d seen before; the other he did not know.

As the man he’d seen before walked toward the corner store, the second man opened fire, killing him on the railroad tracks just a few yards away from Xavien.

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The killer started running away when he noticed Xavien, who was unsure what to do, looking on.

“Go in the house, they shooting,” the man said before darting away, leaving Xavien stunned.

Neighbors started pouring outside to find out what happened, with many moving closer to the body. Xavien, however, did not move an inch.

Eventually, Xavien’s mother Luckcher Howard came out of the house and shook him out of his trance.

“Mom,” he said, “I saw a dude shoot a guy on the train tracks.”

Both were terrified. The shooter saw Xavien, and he also knew where he lived. They both knew his life might be in danger if the shooter thought Xavien told the police. So Luckcher sent Xavien 20 minutes away to live with his grandmother for the next two months, just to be safe, until the police found the killer.

Xavien returned home, but he wasn’t the same. He says he was “traumatized,” but in retrospect, Luckcher says it helped him.

“It grew him up, let him know what he wanted to do in life,” Luckcher told Yahoo Sports. “He wanted to hang around positive people.”

He wanted to get out of the Fifth Ward.

Xavien Howard (L) grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward with six siblings. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Xavien Howard (L) grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward with six siblings. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

The origins of Xavien Howard

Located about five minutes northeast of downtown Houston, the Fifth Ward is a place where even a trip to the store down the street can be an adventure. This is where Xavien Howard, who now spends his Sundays as one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks for the Miami Dolphins, grew up.

Day after day, Howard trekked through the streets to get some chips and juice, passing drug dealers every time. He was always on high alert, careful to never hang around too long, lest he get caught up in a turf war.

“Hearing gunshots, seeing people get shot, that was just normal to me,” Howard says.

Luckcher did her best to keep Xavien and his six siblings out of trouble. As a single mom, she worked a variety of jobs to keep the lights on, food on the table and clean clothes on their backs. But bad influences remained, and some of Xavien’s friends ended up succumbing to the fast money that drug dealing provided.

“You see a guy with all the J’s [Air Jordans] on, you wanna do that so you [can] look better and boost your confidence,” Howard says. “I had friends like that, that were out there dealing drugs trying to provide for [themselves].”

Xavien’s best defense was sports. He was the second-oldest, and his big sister Ashley — who was one year older — set the tone. She starred in multiple sports, which he also did, and she and Xavien always competed hard against each other, especially when it came to pickup basketball, where she used to bully him in the post until he finally outgrew her.

“That’s where his love of sports came from,” Luckcher says.

While some members of his family were drawn to life in the Fifth Ward, where crime and drugs are rampant, the backdrop of negativity served as a constant reminder for Xavien of what not to be.

“He’s seen a lot out here,” Luckcher Howard says.

“I didn’t want to see that, man,” Xavien explains now, shaking his head not too far removed from that nearly 12-year old memory of a man being shot dead right before his eyes. “I saw him fall to the ground. That was enough for me.”

A life’s course is set

Howard kicked his desire to make it out of the Fifth Ward into overdrive. While Ashley and his other siblings would get into scuffles here and there with other kids, Xavien never seemed to get into any real trouble. His mother saw him as an obedient kid, one who willingly went to church, prayed regularly and always seemed to act like he had a higher purpose.

“I always wanted to be something different, man,” Howard says. “I didn’t want to be a product of my environment. I always say, the Fifth Ward is like a box; everybody doing the same thing, everybody’s got the same hustle. But I wanted to do something different — I didn’t want to be going in and out of jail, not seeing family, not seeing friends. I wanted to give the Fifth Ward something they can be proud of.”

Luckcher had long promised her son that if he did something he liked, he’ll go far in his life, so Xavien decided football would be his ticket out. He legitimately liked going to practice, so much so that he used to walk there, 20 minutes each way, beginning his junior year at Wheatley High School, where he starred as a quarterback and press-man heavy cornerback, and eventually earned scholarship offers from multiple Big 12 schools.

This excited Howard, who was eager to again follow in his big sister’s footsteps and play sports in college, as Ashley had earned a basketball scholarship to Western Texas College.

But Ashley wouldn’t last there a year. Like it was with other kids from their area — which Howard’s coaches kept warning him about — the pull of home, as destructive as it was, was strong. She missed her mom and her siblings, and while she loved playing ball, she eventually came to believe college wasn’t for her. By the time Xavien headed off to begin his college football career at Baylor in the summer of 2012, Ashley had already returned to the Fifth Ward. And while Xavien battled homesickness his first year on campus — his eyes were so bloodshot from crying during the initial three-hour drive to Waco that athletic trainers thought there was something wrong with him — Ashley repeatedly issued a warning to Xavien.

“If you go away, stay away,” she told him. “Make sure you take care of your business down there. Ain’t nothing here, other than the same old thing as when you were here.”

Ashley wishes she would have followed her own advice.

“I really wish I would have stayed in college, because I really don’t think I would be in this situation if I did,” she says during a recent phone interview from a Texas penitentiary.

Another brush with murder

Not long after she returned to Houston, Ashley ended up giving birth to a son. She had support from her mom, and at the time the baby’s father was around, too, but Ashley wasn’t ready for the responsibility. She had a few jobs, but the money wasn’t coming fast enough for her taste.

“I turned to the fast life, falling in with the wrong crowds when I really didn’t have to,” Ashley says.

On May 23, 2013, Ashley says she was on her way home after a fight with her son’s father when she spoke to Racquel Gonzalez, a longtime friend, on the phone. They had grown accustomed to doing illegal things for quick cash by then, Ashley says, and they agreed to steal some merchandise from a local mall so they could sell it for profit on the street.

They recruited a driver, a friend named Shiquinta Franklin, and ended up snatching over $2,600 in merchandise from a Macy’s before speeding away in Ashley’s red Dodge Avenger. They got on Highway 59 and proceeded to engage in a high-speed chase with the police, with Gonzalez in the passenger seat and Ashley in the back, before they pulled off the highway onto a feeder road, where they encountered a red light.

“Keep going,” Ashley said, according to court documents. “I have too much to lose.”

Franklin did, and she slammed into a vehicle carrying driver Rosalva Quezada and her three sons. Quezada died when the vehicle flipped, and her sons went to the hospital with injuries, one seriously.

Franklin was charged with murder, evading arrest and accident involving injury and death. She was convicted and sentenced to 25 years. Howard and Gonzalez were initially charged with felony evading and theft, but Howard was eventually indicted for murder as well. She took it to court and was convicted and sentenced to 35 years.

“It was an accident. What more can we say? We apologize,” she said at the time.

Five years later, Ashley remains remorseful about the tragedy that affected another family in irrevocable ways.

“Someone lost their life due to the decision we made that day,” Ashley says now. “It was a bad decision that has changed my life. It’s something I pray about, and repent for, and ask the Lord to forgive me for my role in doing it every day.”

Xavien, who was on his way home from his first year in college the day Ashley was arrested, remembers the shock when his brother Zack told him the news over the phone. He felt terrible for the victim and her family. He also felt for his sister, who’d made it to college and tried to set an example for him, but in his mind, ended up lured by the Fifth Ward’s many traps.

“It affected him,” Luckcher says of Xavien, “and it still bothers him to this day.”

Xavien Howard stood out enough at Baylor to become a second-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft. (AP)
Xavien Howard stood out enough at Baylor to become a second-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft. (AP)

A bet on himself

With Ashley’s arrest serving as a jarring reminder of the dangers of failing at Baylor, Howard diligently got over his homesickness and went to work on turning his NFL dream into reality. He started working with a footwork specialist in Houston, and by 2014, as a redshirt sophomore, he became a starter, snagging four interceptions. The next season, he lived up to his billing as one of the Big 12’s best corners, using his physical style and natural ball skills to snag five interceptions.

The NFL draft advisory board gave him a fifth-round grade, essentially suggesting that he should go back to school for his senior year, but Howard disagreed with their assessment, believing “in his gut” he was ready. His decision to declare wasn’t based on need, either; by then, his mom and his stepfather had moved to a two-story home in Spring, Texas, meaning his five younger siblings, his cousin (whose father is also incarcerated) and his sister’s son (who lives with Luckcher) are now in a safer situation.

Xavien was right to bet on himself. And when the Dolphins took him in the second round of the 2016 draft, he allowed the pride of accomplishing his goal — all while carrying the Howard family name proudly — to wash over him.

“It’s a big thing, for me, to give them something they can brag about,” Howard said. “Because I didn’t have anything I could brag about.”

Howard’s done nothing but do just that since his selection, and he even started playing like an upper-echelon corner the moment the Dolphins started letting him do what he does best — press receivers — late last season.

Howard has snagged seven interceptions over the Dolphins’ past 11 games, including a star-making, two-interception game against Tom Brady last December. He has generally played so well that his teammates have given him a nickname — “X Factor” — which all elite, No. 1 cornerbacks need.

“You can just tell when he gets excited anytime that we play a team that has an elite receiver,” says Matt Burke, the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator. “He knows that everybody is going to be watching him and how he plays and what he does.”

No one, however, will be watching him closer than his beloved family. Xavien is not just inspiring his siblings by playing in the NFL; he’s doing it with his actions, too.

Xavien Howard’s keepsake for snagging two interceptions against Tom Brady and the Patriots last season. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Xavien Howard’s keepsake for snagging two interceptions against Tom Brady and the Patriots last season. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

Xavien Howard, caretaker

In addition to buying school supplies for his younger brothers and sisters, Howard also tries to serve as a mentor for his sister’s son, who is now 6 years old and without his mother and father.

“You never know what kids go through, not having both parents in their life,” Howard says. “Guys these days say, ‘I didn’t have a dad in my life’ as an excuse. I don’t want him to be one of those guys to say, ‘Hey, I didn’t have my mom or dad.’ ”

Luckcher says her grandson is doing well, and Xavien also FaceTimes him and sees him whenever possible. He even came to the Dolphins’ last game, and they’ll see each other again Thursday, when the Dolphins play just down the road in Houston in prime time.

“He’s always smiling,” Howard says of his nephew, “but you never know what he’s going through.”

One of Xavien’s younger brothers, Keith Collins, plays on Wheatley High’s football team. He not only wears the same No. 4 jersey Xavien did, but also plays the same positions.

“He’s trying to live up to the expectations I put on him at Wheatley,” Xavien says with a smile. “I put a lot of pressure on him because I want him to be the best and not fall victim to the environment.”

Xavien also has two daughters of his own in Ava, 3, and Skyler, 10 months, and his girlfriend Keli Long has his first son on the way.

“That’s the motivation I need to keep me going every day,” Xavien says.

Xavien’s son is due March 23 which is one day before his sister’s birthday.

Xavien Howard, pictured with his two daughters and girlfriend Keli Long, is expecting a son next year. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Xavien Howard, pictured with his two daughters and girlfriend Keli Long, is expecting a son next year. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

Unfinished business for Howard family

Xavien and Ashley stay in frequent contact, with Xavien not only adding money to her books when necessary, but also paying for her classes in prison. Ashley says she is in a business communication program and plans to finish school in the next few weeks. She soon hopes to join a program that makes books for the blind.

“I’m on the right path now,” Ashley says, “and I’m just happy to have my brother there to support me and continue to push me. And he stays positive … everything he says to me is positive.

“I’m proud that my brother has stayed focused … he was able to step aside from any other negativity and any trouble. He just put his mind to one thing and he did it. He’s a great father, a great supporter for his family … and he’s there for us. I don’t know how we’d make it without him.”

Xavien plans on working with a lawyer to revive Ashley’s appeal efforts (she received 10 more years than the driver in the accident), which were denied last year. She’s up for parole in 2030.

He also plans on buying his mom a big new house when – and if — he lands a big-time extension with the Dolphins, which he’ll be eligible for after this season as his rookie deal is set to expire after the 2019 campaign.

“That’s what I’m hoping right now,” Xavien says. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen like that; sometimes guys go somewhere else and get their bread. But my main focus is focusing on the moment and taking advantage of the opportunity I got [right now].”

But that big new house is tough not to dream about, especially given where he comes from. Xavien will always care about the Fifth Ward — he held his first annual football camp there last summer and will continue to do so — but after seeing what his childhood environment has done to his family over the years, he understandably has one requirement for that new home.

“[It will be] somewhere far away from the Fifth Ward, I know that for sure,” Xavien says with a laugh. “Somewhere in the suburbs.”

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